URBAN AGENDA: New York’s Segregated School System is an Embarrassment
David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 4/4/2019, midnight
Every time another school shooting occurs in America, it’s common to hear a chorus of “thoughts and prayers,” a symbolic term used by politicians who pretend to care about the tragedy, but do not have the courage or conviction to call for the type of change—namely, gun control—that would actually make shootings less likely to happen in the future.
The same dynamic is true of the admissions results to New York City’s eight specialized high schools (SHS). This year’s figures just came out and are as bad as ever.
Of the 895 students admitted to Stuyvesant High School, just seven are black. That’s seven out of the 5,288 black students that took the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), the highest scores of which get you into Stuyvesant, followed by Bronx High School of Science, then Brooklyn Tech, then the five newer schools opened since 2011.
In a public school system that is 70 percent black and Latino, about ten percent of total SHS offers go to black and Latino students. This is an embarrassment, and an indictment of our system of “public” education.
The single test admission mechanism for the eight SHS was set by a state law adopted in 1971, over much controversy, as part of a broader effort to prevent “white flight” from the city, and to preserve some top “public” schools for white families. Forty-eight years later, our school system is highly segregated, with black and brown students for the most part concentrated in under-resourced schools and admission to the city’s elite and top performing high schools all but reserved for those who score high on a standardized test.
Education experts use the term “opportunity hoarding” to describe how families with resources are able to create public institutions to serve their own purposes. That’s exactly what’s happening with the city’s elite high schools. And while these schools only serve a small fraction of the more than one million students in the system, the appalling underrepresentation of students of color in their ranks is symptomatic of the pervasive inequities inherent in the system.
For consecutive years now, the number of black and Latino students admitted into the SHS has dwindled. While decrying the results, most politicians have refused to call for the elimination of the single test admission policy. Instead we’re told the remedy is more test prep, expanding “Gifted and Talented” programs, or encouraging more black and brown students to apply to SHS.
Last week, however, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said what few elected leaders in New York have had the courage to say regarding the controversial single-test admission policy governing the city’s elite high school: Time to abolish it.
I applaud the Speaker for having the courage to take this stand. Last June, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan (based on a CSS proposal) to improve diversity at the eight SHS, which would allow the top seven percent of students from every middle school—as long as they are in the top 25 percent citywide—direct admission to the SHS, using grades and state exams that everyone takes and prepares for.
This would quadruple the numbers of black and Latino students, while barely changing proficiency on standardized state exams (which, unlike SHSAT, everyone takes and are actually connected to what you are supposed to learn in middle school).
But while the mayor proposed a good plan, we have not seen him take the political action necessary to get it passed in Albany. Now that the Speaker has called for an end to the single-test policy, perhaps the mayor and more of our elected leaders will summon the political courage to seek real change on an issue that requires action, not symbolism.
The only way we are going to change admission results at SHS is by eliminating the single test criterion. Period. For years, the single test has been pitting public school parents against each other while giving an unfair advantage to students and families with resources to pour thousands of dollars and hours into test preparation.
Those who say more test prep is the solution to the abysmal representation of black and Latino students in these schools are ignoring data and research that show it is not having an impact. And here’s a statistic for all those politicians who defend the single-test policy out of fear of alienating the Asian community. Seventy percent of Asian students who apply to the SHS do not get in via the single-test. In other words, there are many subgroups and nationalities within that larger SHS applicant pool that end up on the outside looking in due to the single test policy.
We now have two of the most important elected officials in our city openly acknowledging that it’s time to eliminate the SHSAT. And in another important editorial, the New York Times called on the Mayor to de-designate the five newest specialized high schools that are not named in state law, and to apply his percentage plan to their admissions immediately. I could not agree more. The momentum for change is building, and we aren’t backing down.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.